All That I Can Fix opens with squirrels raining down from trees during a windstorm. And someone has uncaged a menagerie of hungry carnivores into the neighborhood where Ronney, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, and his family live. Well now. The plot of Crystal Chan’s new young adult novel accelerates right from the onset.
First the book; then, stick around for an interview with Crystal Chan–author, speaker, and compassion activist.
In All That I Can Fix, Ronney’s life is fraught with challenges. He is stalked by a boy who inexplicably demands Ronney’s distinctive jeans, which are decorated with question marks. Apparently the pants formerly belonged to the boy’s beloved runaway older brother and Ronney struggles to help. Ronney’s father’s attempted suicide left this head of the family emotionally damaged and with a bullet in his shoulder. Ronney’s mom has been coping with life by popping pills. His bright fourth-grade sister Mina gives him some focus. His other emotional outlet is home repair. He may not be able to fix his family, but he can deal with a leaking roof or seal coating the driveway.
Our hero’s female friend George and male friend Jello are his smart, idiosyncratic best buddies, although Ronney craves a more personal relationship with George. Could one possible complication be that Ronney and his family are mixed-race while George and Jello are white? The story does not make obvious which races are in Ronney’s heritage, although at one point he is mistaken for Latino. Perhaps the message is that simply not being white is problem enough.
Unlike Ms. Chan’s first book, a middle grade novel titled Bird, Ronney’s lineage is left open in her young adult novel All That I Can Fix. In Bird, the protagonist Jewel’s family heritage includes Jamaican and Mexican, with many cultural references to both belief systems. Another difference is that race is definitely a factor in Jewel’s family life, whereas the race of Ronney’s family does not play as direct a role in the problems Ronney faces, which mainly revolve around his parents’ behavior. That is, until Ronney realizes that George only wants to be “friends”. Will young readers decide that is actually more about his being of a blended family than because of his personal traits? Ronney is smart, yet he skips a lot of school, has a trashy vocabulary, and responds to his damaged father in abrupt and sometimes insulting ways. George loves Ronney’s creative and logical thinking, but perhaps draws the line at the other stuff he dishes.
All That I Can Fix is more about dealing with difficulties that could affect anyone’s life without regard to the color of the characters’ skin. This surprised me. I have read some of Crystal Chan’s wonderful self-described “compassion activist” conversations on line about race. Like her protagonists, she is of mixed race since her father is from Hong Kong and her mother, from Wisconsin, is of Polish-American descent. Like Ronney’s desire to fix everything that is wrong with his family home, Crystal would like to repair relations between white and non-white readers. This novel achieves that by showing a non-white family struggling with being themselves, as much a part of their Makersville, Indiana town as anyone else.
Oh, and about those ravenous lions, tigers, boas, etc.? They skulk throughout the story, inspiring clashes between gun rights people and gun control supporters and throwing mortal fear into everyone. The dramatic climax involves the tiger, a gun, and declarations of bravery. Young readers will surely feel that this novel is packed with intriguing drama and fascinating characters.
Crystal shared her thoughts with us about running, writing, and race.
Joyce Audy Zarins: Crystal, Thank you for all that you do to build understanding within our community of readers. Any chance you will be running for office in 2020? We certainly could use a “compassion activist” leading this country!
Crystal Chan: (Laughing) I won’t be running for office in 2020 because I don’t like to run. Maybe I would “walk quickly” for office. Or “saunter”. But seriously, one of the things that grieves me most about this country is the lack of leadership – and I’m not talking about partisan politics. I’m talking about leaders who have the moral courage and integrity to do what’s right, to make hard decisions, and not to be afraid to compromise. With our country’s leaders too entrenched to even listen to each other, how can we be guided with wisdom? If our leaders aren’t listening to each other, if the adults aren’t listening to each other, how are we preparing our children to be leaders who can listen to the other side? This whole theme – the failure of adults – is woven into the book. And like I said, I’m not talking partisan politics. Adults all across the board have failed our youth in this respect. And I wanted to write a book that reflects this.
JAZ: Your first novel, Bird, which I have been listening to in its audio version, is more directly about race than All That I Can Fix is. What was your goal?
C.C.: (See above)
JAZ: You have chosen to explore bi-racial or multi-racial themes in your books. Is this to fill in what is missing or to change a culture?
C.C.: I wrote about a multiracial protagonist because there’s very few of them in our literature today, and I wanted to write a story that I could relate to.
JAZ: Your anti-gun stance is also evident in this novel.
C.C.: It’s funny you say that, because I have had some readers tell me that the book is actually very pro-gun! I take that as a compliment, that people are seeing the book’s stance on guns in different ways – it means I’ve done my job in depicting both sides of the debate. That was my goal regarding guns: Not to give my personal viewpoint, but to have a piece of literature that can hopefully open up honest, open discussion on both sides. I do have a strong viewpoint on guns, and it took a very long time for me to be able to be ready to give equal space to both sides. But if we are approaching this as mature adults, with substantial emotional capacity, we should be ready to explore how the “other side” sees and feels, because that is what will allow us to cross the divide and come to real solutions to these very real problems.
JAZ: What is your hope for the role that books can play?
C.C.: I would love for All That I Can Fix to open up conversations on the gun debate, on what real leadership necessitates in this country, on mentorship, on growing up too fast, on child PTSD, on loyalty and loss and second chances. (grinning) That’s all. Not much.
JAZ: What is your view on white writers including diverse characters in their stories?
C.C.: Of course! That’s the million-dollar question. My question to you is, “What kind of ‘white writer’ are we talking about?” Because if you’re white, and if you’re writing about characters of a different race, I fully expect you to spend years – years – doing research. And not just research of the mind, but research of the heart: How does it feel to be oppressed in this country? How does it feel to live in a country that lynched your ancestors, that passed laws against the immigration of your people? How does it feel to tell a six-year-old black child that society doesn’t view them with the same worth that it does a six-year-old white child? How does race-related anger, rage, shame, struggle, pride feel? Those kinds of things. Not every white writer can delve into this, and so not every white writer should be writing about diverse characters. That’s not to say that a white writer can’t grow – in fact, that’s the challenge that I put to white writers: You must grow, and grow a lot, and I believe you can – but most white writers have a long, long, long way to go. I would say 99% of white writers aren’t ready.
JAZ: What is your view on diverse writers including white characters in their stories?
C.C.: POC writers definitely should do their homework when researching and writing about white characters. The same standard should apply – are you writing from the heart or from an intellectual standpoint only? What elements of the culture are you highlighting, and are these elements stereotypes? It is different, however, because white culture is everywhere – everywhere – every movie, TV show, billboard, history books, and so on. So white culture is much easier to tap into and research than would be a specific racial background. Why? Well, in part because our country has done a remarkable job in trying to erase different, various backgrounds. So white writers writing POC backgrounds will need to do some digging, and sensitive digging at that, even more so: Self aware, sensitive digging. POC writers writing white backgrounds will have to do much less digging because white culture is front and center, all the time.
However easy or hard it is to do research into the various cultures, the same quality and standard applies, no matter the race of your character.
JAZ: Your path to publication was different for each book. How so?
C.C.: Well, Bird took me about two years to write, and All That I Can Fix has taken me almost seven. Also, Bird is a very international book – it was published in 10 countries – but here in the United States it didn’t really get any starred reviews. On the other hand, All That I Can Fix has not sold internationally yet, but it has already raked in three starred reviews, and we’re not done yet. And the voice of each story is so completely, utterly different. They are two different creatures.
JAZ: Do you have suggestions for writers seeking representation?
C.C.: Write the best story your heart can muster, and don’t be afraid if it takes longer than you thought. If you want to be published, know that you’re swimming in the big kid pool now, and this is not about your ego, this is about the story. Sacrifice everything for the story. Especially your ego.
JAZ: What will your next book be? Its theme?
C.C.: No idea! I’m focusing right now on author talks and doing my “compassion activist” thing. That’s my fire in the belly right now.